Monday, 8 December 2003

Lessig highlights Bush's depublishing — but misses the real story

Here is a new entry for the annals of "depublishing" — the practice of removing or altering electronic articles after publication. (For background, see Greg Ritter's now-classic blog post on Dave Winer's depublishing in Scripting News, "The Ethics of De-Publishing.") This time, depublishing has lived up to its Orwellian promise, as political activists and the media have swallowed the altered version of history.

Lawrence Lessig reports a find from the Way Back Machine, a side project of the Internet Archive ("speaking of new speak, a report from the Archives"):

On May 1, 2003, the Whitehouse's Office of the Press Secretary released this press release, announcing "President Bush Announces Combat Operations in Iraq Have Ended." But then, with airbrush magic, now the same press release has been changed to this, which reports "President Bush Announces Major Combat Operations in Iraq Have Ended." No update on the page, no indication of when the change occurred, indeed, no indication that any change occurred at all. Instead, there is robots.txt file disallowing all sorts of activities that might verify the government. (Why does any government agency believe it has the power to post a robots.txt file?)

Why would you need to check up on the Whitehouse, you might ask? Who would be so unAmerican as to doubt the veracity of the Press Office? Great question for these queered times. And if you obey the code of the robots.txt file, you’ll never need to worry.

The rub, of course, is in the word major. The original press release implies that combat operations are, well, ended. The silently doctored version makes the President seem better acquainted with the situation and prescient. The motives behind this are as old as politics itself, so the only thing that would seem to be new is the technology. However, something deeper is going on here.

The mainstream press, and even some Bush bashers, have swallowed the altered version of history. A Google News search for "major combat operations" & Iraq yields over 1,100 hits. Keep in mind that Google News indexes only mainstream sources, that its index only lasts a week or two, and that a comprehensive Lexis-Nexis search would probably yield tens or hundreds of thousands of hits. Here is a sampling of the first few Google hits. Note how each one treats the depublished ("afterpublished," really) word major as an historical fact:

  • Washington Post ("Eight months after President Bush declared major combat operations over….")
  • Reuters, via Yahoo ("…recalling the president's May 1 landing on the flight deck of a Navy aircraft carrier when he declared an end to major combat operations in Iraq…")
  • Herald Sun of Australia ("Four police officers have been killed in Kirkuk since May 1, when US President George W. Bush announced an end to major combat operations in Iraq.")
  • Voice of America ("Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld [describes] an important transformation that has occurred since the end of major combat operations.")
  • Oakland Tribune ("Rumsfeld said the drop-off in attacks since November, in which more American troops were killed than in any other month, including during major combat operations, was encouraging — but he warned that its meaning was unclear. ")
  • Muslim American Society ("Do you remember that great deck of playing cards that the Bush Administration came up with at the end of 'major combat operations' in Iraq?")
  • Update: New York Times (on Saddam Hussein's capture: "Some senior Bush administration officials had suspected that Mr. Hussein was not only still alive but inspiring, if not leading, the guerrilla-style insurgency that has left more than 190 American soldiers dead since President Bush declared an end to major combat operations on May. 1.")
  • Update:Washington Post ("From Sept. 1 through Friday, 145 service members were killed in action in Iraq, compared with 65 from May 1 to Aug. 30. The two four-month intervals cover counterinsurgency operations, far costlier than major combat operations, which President Bush declared over on May 1.)

Posted at 4:42:50 PM | Permalink
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